At the Intersection of Youth and the Future | Ecology of Education

At the Intersection of Youth and the Future

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Painting a picture that was both harrowing and hopeful, Van Jones titillated the gathering of educators on the final morning of ASCD’s 2013 Annual Conference with both the peril and promise of tomorrow. In short, despite the copious challenges we find ourselves in today, we can look to the generation currently in our schools to lead the way to a brighter future – if we capitalize on their potential.

He opened with three fallacies (or unsustainable practices) that shape our economic present and near future:

Fallacy 1: Focus on consumption, not production. We need malls, not factories.

Fallacy 2: Build through credit, not savings (buy a flatscreen tv to cover up the holes in your life). By and large our consumption patterns are financed on credit – not savings like our grandparents.

Fallacy 3: We can have endless ecological destruction without ecological restoration. We are living as if we have a couple other planets somewhere. But we don’t. We live on this little green salt bubble in space.

It would have been easy to spend the next 45 minutes focused on a central theme: WE ARE ALL DOOMED! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES! Instead, he focused on the emerging trends at the intersection of technology and youth that, if we navigate them right, portend prosperity. (The below quotes are as near verbatim as my stenography allowed.)

The generation we are teaching are going to be and already are very aware of these fallacies. This generation in your classroom, don’t count them out. There’s a reason you are struggling with them and they are struggling with you. They know stuff we don’t know. And they know that we don’t know. And they know that we don’t know that we don’t know.

He went on to theorize,

The challenge is the dichotomy between learning that matters and learning for testing. Much of our current system is built on questions and ideas that the students can google. But students are failing b/c the tests we are giving them are failing them. What if, instead, we asked them questions they can’t google and stimulate with them a dialogue around ideas, challenges, and solutions? As the most “tech sophisticated generation ever,” the trick is to figure out how to help them utilize and leverage the skills, talents, ideas, and behavioral norms that shape their generation. They are “more self aware, socially inclusive, and ecologically conscious” than today’s leaders.

Essentially, Van is arguing for a strengths based approach at a broader, more systemic altitude. What kind of projects, activities and experiences will both engage this generation’s unique qualities and take advantage of their tendencies while simultaneously preparing them to be the social and ecological entrepreneurs of tomorrow?

It is in shaping his vision that he became most animated and passionate. One could almost get the sense that the possibilities were so inevitable that they were there for the taking, or even so far as to be ours to squander. Which is not case.

If we want to realize this future – one in which our budding entrepreneurs engineer a better future more in keeping with the limited resources of our planet – we have some to-do’s.

Our learning environments need to model and provide opportunities for doing three things, which may seem contradictory at first, but reveal the need for balance in our production, consumption, and application of ideas toward today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

  1. Production:  Students need to create and bring their ideas to reality. As an example, 3d printers can help turn students into entrepreneurs. We want 3d printers so students can get out in the front. Consumption can be a good thing if balance with a production ethos.
  2. Conservation thrift: Young adults today are sharing more than ever, and creating niche economies in the process. Their cars, homes,  and what they know, all the while using technology to solve problems. Combined with being more ecologically aware, they can lead the way in rethinking our use of resources.
  3. Economy of creativity: Today’s self starters are getting creative with how they bring about their vision. Kickstarter is a prime example. We need to continue to encourage such innovative problem solving.

In many ways, it comes down to this: “You want your bored kids to be involved? Offer them courses that matter to them!” This is a central tenet of any effort to disrupt the predictive characteristics of race, gender, socio-economic status, and cognitive profile: When there is a disconnect between the student and the environment, we need to change the environment.

It is at this point that some visionaries fail the legitimacy test. Educators weary of the near constant stream of “you should be doing this” wonder, “Do you have the creds to make such programmatic suggestions, or are you just another arm chair theorist with sweeping ideas and a bone to pick with teachers who don’t actualize them?”

While Van was never a teacher, his mother taught and his father was a principal at what today would be labeled a turn around school. Throughout his career, he has championed the needs of the under-served. He is clearly empathetic with the trials, tribulations, and realities of the classroom “trenches.”

He peppered his talk with a series of well placed jabs against the larger forces negatively impacting educators, and more importantly, students’ experiences in classrooms.

Policy makers, legislators, pundits want to grind you down. Don’t let them.

They have money for Haliburton, big banks, homeland security, but no money for homeroom security.

There are people throwing marbles on the stairs and bananas on the sidewalks to dismantle public education.

Every other nation is investing MORE in education. Yet US students graduate with more and more debt.

Our grandparents taxed themselves to build universities for the next generation. And they respected teachers.

How do we expect students to respect teachers when our leaders don’t?

Students want to be doing something, using their creativity, not taking tests. That’s why they’re dropping out.

We know that students are more successful when they feel their strengths are valued, supported, and enriched. We know that systems focused on vision, goals, and shared objectives enjoy greater success. And we know that leaders who can see and adapt to the changing dynamics of markets, demographics, and opportunities are the ones who shape tomorrow.

As we think about the architects of the next economy — the generation currently weaving their way through schools — it is clear we need to seize the chance to build them up with a strengths based model, not tear them down with a deficit model. Surviving and thriving during and after change events is more likely when they feel confident, able, and valued, not tested, disconnected, and irrelevant.

I left Van Jone’s session and ASCD13 wondering,

  • What are the strengths of the people in our education system now — from students to parents to teachers to leaders — and how can they be leveraged to cultivate learning that matters?
  • What might it look like when learning is meaningful to all students, regardless of their race, gender, socio-economic status, and/or cognitive profile?
  • And, how can we move to actualize a vision that inspires students?
Photo Credit: kay la la via Compfight cc
Van Jones Photo: Van Jones.net

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